Will NEA’s new automated tray return system make Singaporeans less entitled?

The issue of returning our own trays in hawker centres, albeit a simple act of basic consideration, has been an ongoing plague for authorities like the National Environment Agency (NEA), for years. While cleaning up after ourselves has been a mantra taught and inculcated since our schooling years, Singaporeans’ general reliance on our ageing cleaners compels us to leave our messes as they are. To combat this social problem, measures have been implemented over the years, in the form of automated tray return systems (ATRS). Diners can take a tray by placing a deposit of fifty cents, to be returned to them when their trays are returned at the station.

Photo of Nea Automated Tray Return System (ATRS)

According to NEA, all new hawker centres will have ATRS installed, and this has been progressively rolled out for existing suitable hawker centres. The pioneering food centre in this programme, privately-run Timbre+, spots a 98% tray return rate—attributed to their consumer base’s attunement to it. The system has also aided in the betterment of diners in cleaning up after themselves at Bukit Merah Central Food Centre, with 7 in 10 diners doing so. Currently, the ATRS has been inaugurated in 10 hawker centres, 6 in 10 diners are consistently returning their trays. This majority is, however, twice the rate of hawker centres where trays are returned manually.

So, what are the issues that diners face with tray returning?

Diners cite that they are often unable to get their refundable deposit due to the faulty ATRS, thus discouraging them from tray returning. This justification has consequences—it frustrates and inconveniences hawkers, as at the end of the day, they still have to clear the plates of diners.

Ultimately, the aim is to convert the practice of tray returning into a social norm. Diners’ reliance on cleaners is an unsustainable, entitled mindset, with ageing cleaners and a reduced inclination of younger Singaporeans to take up the job. More importantly, we can all be a little more empathetic to cleaners, instead of using the shield of “helping cleaners retain their jobs”, which is, more often than not, another way to vindicate our behaviour. Do we really need a new fine for littering on tables to develop a culture of tray returning? We certainly do not hope so.

Will NEA’s new ATRS help Singaporeans to “automatically” return their trays?

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